Mailbag #6

Horton Hears a Who, Amazing Grace, Once, No Country for Old Men, Left Behind, Romero and more.

Re. Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who!

Thank you for your great review! I was less than eager to see Horton Hears a Who (having been forced to sit through the abomination that was the live-action Grinch movie a few years back), but Julie at Happy Catholic linked to your review and I was intrigued. I just came back from seeing the movie with a friend. I am still laughing! My hope in the future of children’s movies has been restored (well, actually, Pixar did that, but still…).

What a relief to be able to see an animated film that was funny without being sneering or sardonic! And Whoville was just a delight, especially at the end with all the Whos shouting! Anyway, thanks for the great review, I hope more people read it and see the film!

Thanks for writing. I’m glad to hear you found my review helpful. It’s always nice to hear from people who saw the same film you did!

It was The Grinch that started me writing reviews in verse. I felt that film deserved to be skewered, if not in Dr. Seuss's actual voice, at least in a reasonable facsimile thereof. Having gone on to write two additional critiques in verse for The Cat in the Hat and Scooby-Doo, it was a pleasure, as well as a challenge, to tackle a positive review in that style.

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Re. Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who!

I am disappointed with Horton’s portrayal of homeschooling. (They added a lot that wasn’t in the book.) The main “evil” character is the kangaroo — a narrow-minded, controlling homeschooling mom who wants to destroy Horton and his new found friends because of it’s threat to the way things are in their jungle society.

Horton is a teacher of jungle kids — fun and silly. The kangaroo’s son asks sadly from her pouch “Mom, why can’t I play with the other kids?” and she explains to the other moms that she “Pouch-schools” and is portrayed as a narrow-minded, cold, controlling fanatic who is constantly telling her son to “go to his room” as she shoves his head down into her pouch and tells him continually that whatever is happening doesn’t concern him. It is very clear that her motives throughout the film were not done out of love for her child, but out of a desperate need to control ideas and keep the authority/tradition of her world from being threatened.

It seems to me you may be missing the forest for the tree.

To begin with, there is no “portrayal of homeschooling” in Horton. What there is, is one (1) throwaway gag alluding to homeschooling — a sour line, as I noted in my review.

The kangaroo is narrow-minded and controlling. That’s straight out of the book (though of course they did add a lot, necessarily, since the book takes about ten minutes tops to read aloud, and that’s doing different voices and stuff).

The film’s kangaroo is also, let it be noted, an empiricist skeptic who repeatedly declares that nothing you can’t see, hear or touch is real, and is equally dismissive of the notion of larger worlds of cosmic mystery and wonder, with incomprehensible beings far greater than we, as she is of the notion of persons too tiny to be seen whose dignity and lives must nevertheless be respected. And Horton’s openness to both drives her crazy.

Who does that look like a parody of? Conservative Christian homeschooling parents? As a father of five homeschooled kids, I can’t say I ever felt it was my ox being gored here, except for that one line. No, the kangaroo looks much more like an angry secularist, hostile to mystery, inconvenient moral duties and forms of insight outside the scope of her reductive epistomology — and determined to stamp out competing worldviews by any means necessary.

Note, too, the basically happy and affectionately portrayed (though not perfect) family of the Who Mayor, an enormous family with 96 girls and one boy. Whatever the foibles of the Mayor and his culture, the Mayor and his family are basically sympathetic, and while there are suggestions that he might do better to let his son do his own thing and give a little more individual attention to this daughters, there’s no whiff of anti-natalist contempt of large families here.

It’s hard to count all the positives in this little film. The absolute authority of conscience, and the necessity of being true to one’s convictions in the face of social resistance. The uncompromising character of moral truth; the gravity of keeping one’s word and honoring one’s commitments. (“Just this once, be faithful 99 percent of the time!” Morton wheedles. “I mean, I’ve never gone 99 percent on anything, and I think I’m awesome!”) The responsibility even of children, as noted in the Catechism, constrained by conscience, to disobey morally flawed orders from authority figures, even their parents.

The willingness to “look both ‘up’ and ‘down,’” as my friend and colleague Peter Chattaway put it in his blog, “to humble ourselves and see ourselves as small, yet also to see the greatness that exists in others who we may find all too easy to dismiss.” (Peter goes on to note that “Appropriately, the former point is emphasized with a ‘God shot’ that looks straight down on Horton himself from a heavenly height.”)

Community solidarity and responsibility — the whole Who populace pulling together to affirm “We are here! We are here! We are here!” Democracy and civic responsibility in action.

A ringing pro-life message, clearly intentional in the source material, with an obvious anti-abortion connection that appears not to be intentional but is no less valid for that (and strikingly reinforced by Horton’s earlier pro-life struggle in Horton Hatches the Egg, which unambiguously deals with embryonic life). As the pastoral instruction Communio et Progressio notes, part of the critic’s role involves discovering “in works of art meaning and riches that may have escaped even the artists themselves.”

(Spoiler warning.) And then, capping everything else, Horton forgives his enemy — has compassion even on the sour kangaroo, once she has been humbled, and unhesitatingly welcomes her back into the community. Not for this film the gleeful humiliation and ostracization of a demonized authority figure. No one is beyond forgiveness, grace, even cookies.

Horton is delightful, wholesome family entertainment: funny, well-done, morally solid, and genuinely entertaining for both kids and adults. It would be a real mistake to allow one line, or generalized political concerns around authority and so forth, to sour us on exactly the kind of film we ought to be warmly welcoming.

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Re. Faith and Film Criticism

With regard to your statement that there is no pope of movies (in “Faith and Film Criticism: The Challenge of the Catholic Critic”), I recall discussing a film I had seen with a priest in Boston, a member of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary (an order that puts its commitment to the Magisterium in writing).

The priest said, “The Catholic Church teaches authoritatively, has always taught authoritatively, and will always teach authoritatively, that the visual arts… (pauses for dramatic effect) are a grey area.”

That’s classic. Not 100 percent accurate, but classic. I’ll definitely be quoting that one. Thanks for sharing.

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Re. Amazing Grace

My only quarrel with Amazing Grace was a musical one. The Newton poem was not associated with the tune “New Britain” until the late 19th century, and that in America, but was sung to almost any Common Metre tune. Wilberforce’s singing it at the gambling club and the congregation singing it at his wedding to “New Britain” was anachronistic.

Yes, I’ve heard this. I can’t say myself that this would be my only quarrel with the film — partly because I have other quarrels, but more because I wouldn’t quarrel with the film over this anachronism.

Anachronism is not always an artistic sin. To take an extreme example, films set in the ancient or medieval world typically depict the characters speaking in the modern language of the filmmakers and their audience. This is generally understood to be a necessary bridge between the material and the cultural context of the audience.

To have “Amazing Grace” sung anachronistically to the tune by which it has been universally known for decades represents a not entirely dissimilar situation. To use any other tune would create a deep disconnect for viewers in a film that is very much aware of its audience. A high-minded music-history literacy advocate might consider it a “teachable moment,” but the filmmakers would be within their rights to consider the historical point not worth the loss of the well-known tune and its deep-seated cultural significance, certainly in American consciousness.

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Re. Once

I’m glad you appreciated Once. I think it’s a rare person who does appreciate it the way you did though. You hinted at this throughout your review; Once is not a typical romance, musical, or low-budget film. And someone can’t just be inclined toward those types of films to enjoy it.

I’ve talked with people about Once, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is one of those movies that a lot of people just don’t or aren’t willing to understand or relate to. But, if you do let yourself be pulled in and affected, it’s immensely enjoyable and meaningful. I’m being too vague, but you know what I mean.

Sometimes I wonder what came first, your reviews or my taste in movies. :)

Ha! Perhaps it’s just a happy convergence. And yes, I certainly know what you mean — that’s why my review was vague, too. This is the kind of film that benefits least from the usual sort of review. Put another way, if all movies were like this, I at least would be out of a job (though other styles of criticism would continue). And I’d be perfectly happy. I’d get more sleep, too.

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Re. Faith and Film Criticism; No Country for Old Men

I’m a regular visitor of Decent Films, and as a Catholic I enjoy reading your reviews.

However, I am concerned about a comment you made in your essay, Faith and Film Criticism, about No Country for Old Men. You called it “nihilistic” and “amoral.” These two adjectives certainly carry strong negative meanings. Without anything else to go by, I assume that you did not find this film very valuable, overall (you did say that was “painstakingly crafted”).

I saw No Country for Old Men in theaters and I’ve since bought the DVD and watched it several times. The reason why I’m concerned about the way you described NCFOM is that I’ve often noticed that you dismiss the significance of films that have in them a theme of nihilism. In the case of NCFOM, I agree with you that it does have a theme of nihilism (I certainly do not think that it is its only theme). But is it a bad thing that one of NCFOM’s message is one of nihilism? I think for it to be not acceptable, it would have to in some way glorify or promote it.

No Country for Old Men does nothing of the sort. Certainly, characters like Anton Chigurh are nihilistic themselves; Chigurh only believes in fate, and he sees himself as one who carries out what fate prescribes. But Sheriff Bell’s narration in the opening sets the mood of the film and lays out the film’s main message. Bell talks about how police never carried guns on duty, and he laments about how the world is changing for the worse. “The crime these days…it’s hard to even take its measure.” And talking about Chigurh’s claim that he’d be in hell in fifteen minutes, Bell says that he doesn’t know what to make of it.

I hardly think that No Country is amoral about the fact that Chigurh is going on a killing rampage, and that he has no qualms whatsoever about cold-blooded murder or putting the fate of someone’s life on a coin toss. In fact, showing Chigurh’s nihilistic behavior explicitly and without emotion or mood (e.g., music) helps to drive the gravity of Chigurh’s actions into the audience’s conscious.

No Country gives us, I believe, an important social observation for the future: times are changing, the quality of crime is becoming more cruel, ruthless, and even nihilistic. As Javier Bardem says, the movie is really a critique of violence itself. It gives a realistic picture of the future to us. Is that really a bad thing? The fact that it doesn’t have a clear-cut solution to that observation doesn’t make it a bad film. Maybe it’s up to us to provide that solution. The great thing about the film is that it is open enough for there to be discussion about its themes. Rarely, in my opinion, is a film with a narrow and authoritative solution to or explanation for a presented problem a good one.

And what about Greek tragedies? Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother, and has children with her, is about as perverted a story as you can get. But its worth as a story, about a king who thinks he’s better than the gods, and who thinks he can escape his fate without consequence, is still thought of as a timeless treasure of literature. But according to you, tragedies such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet are nihilistic and amoral. For me, a tragedy, which NCFOM can be categorized as, is sometimes the most effective way to move people, and not in an amoral way necessarily.

Let me note, first of all, that there is a world of difference between nihilism as a theme in a film and a nihilistic film, a film that embraces nihilism. A film that treats nihilism as a theme is not necessarily itself nihilistic. I think I can find themes of nihilism in films from The Ninth Day to The Mission to Tsotsi without implicating those films in the nihilism of some of their characters.

Film critics everywhere are indebted to Roger Ebert for his endlessly useful aphorism that a film is not about what it is about, but how it is about it. The fact of Anton Chigurh’s nihilism doesn’t tell us what No Country is about. (Nor, in the counter-examples you give, do Romeo and Juliet’s suicides or the dreadful vagaries of Oedipus’s fate. The question is, how is it about it? What perspective, if any, does it offer the viewer?

I am not of the view that a film must necessarily offer a clear, or even implicit moral perspective on the attitudes and actions of its characters. It can be enough for a film to raise questions without offering answers (though offering wrong answers is something else again).

At the same time, watching No Country, I find myself reflecting on the old saying that the winning lawyer is not the one who has the best legal arguments or the most facts, but the one who tells the best story. Chigurh’s worldview dominates the film, and no counter-narrative emerges as a credible contender.

That no one is able to stop Chigurh doesn’t really bother me. What does bother me is not that he can’t be defeated physically, but that he always has the upper hand in every verbal confrontation. He understands everyone else and no one understands him. “They always say the same thing. ‘You don’t have to do this.’” No one can tell against him, confute him. Even Hannibal Lecter got shut up every once in a while by Clarice Starling.

(Spoiler alert.) I appreciate, very much, that the Coens afford Carla Jean the tiny shred of dignity, that she doesn’t call the coin toss. Yet Chigurh still has the last word: “I got here the same way the coin did.”

Instead of being cross-examined, it is Chigurh who cross-examines others: “If your rule brought you to this, what good is your rule?” It’s a fair question, especially since Chigurh’s “rule” ultimately works better for him than anyone else’s. And nothing in No Country gestures in the direction of any possible answer to his question.

You say Bardem says that the film is a critique of violence. How does he know? If it weren’t a critique of violence but simply a depiction of it in a lawless universe, what would be different?

The Coens excel, I think, at portraying the ordinary decency that much of the world takes for granted, largely ignorant as it is of the Chigurhs among us. That ignorance is no mark against decency in a film like Fargo, where evil is banal and decency is the fixed point of reference. In No Country, the point of reference is an evil so absolute that it leaves decency looking banal in its shadow.

It seems to me that a film like this potentially stands or falls by how it ends. If there is any perspective on the events of the film, any commentary, any critique, that’s where it has to be found. As far as I can tell, the two most relevant points are these (spoiler alert):

First, Chigurh is as it were broadsided by the universe — and walks away.

Second, the opening monologue by Bell is bookended by another at the end, yet this closing monologue seems to be random, disconnected from the film’s events and its real world (though I’m open to proposed interpretations of the dreams that do relate to the film’s events.)

If the film has a perspective on good and evil, I’m tempted to sum it up this way: The darkness shines in the light, and the light has not understood it. That’s not a perspective I find particularly illuminating.

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Re. Don’t Get <i>Left Behind</i>

I began reading your review of the Left Behind movies and books with interest but I really can’t understand why you felt you need to write such a detailed proof of their anti Catholic bias. Protestants (outside of the Episcopalians) have hated the Catholic Church since the beginning and have associated it with Satan for centuries. As a teacher of American Literature I start with the first writings upon this continent. I usually have to explain that when they refer to “the whore of Rome” they don’t mean a famous female prostitute, they mean the pope.

I can’t imagine why you would expect anything but hate and malice from LaHaye. But LaHaye has so many errors in his series that it has no value as a revealer of biblical facts. In the section you referred to concerning the rapture the mistakes are ridiculous. So I’m afraid I had to stop after only a page or two of your article. I think a flat statement upon your part that the Left Behind series is a complete fantasy only indirectly based upon Revelation but that it is wholly anti-Catholic should have sufficed.

The short answer is that my Left Behind article is “not addressed to your condition.” It’s a primer for a point that I felt, given the popularity of the series among Christians of many different stripes, needed some explication, even though it might seem obvious and old hat to those in the know on this particular point.

Incidentally, you may not have meant to imply otherwise, but Episcopalians are hardly the only Protestants who don’t hate Catholics! And, for that matter, there are probably some Episcopalians — possibly at both ends of the very very broad Anglican spectrum — who maybe do! (At this point it probably doesn't help to say that I was an active Episcopalian for many years…)

Sorry you found the piece unhelpful… Hope you found something else to engage your attention.

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Re. Romero

I just found out about your website, and thought of it good because of the reference from However, I am disappointed, and are doubtful now of your recommendations, after reading what you wrote about the movie Romero:

The first feature film from the Paulist Fathers’ moviemaking division, John Duigan’s Romero tells the true story of Latin America’s best-known and most revered modern martyr, Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Goldamez, a man whom John Paul II described as a ”zealous pastor who gave his life for his flock,” and at whose tomb in San Salvador the Holy Father has prayed when visiting El Salvador.”

I am a Salvadorean. I hear Msgr. Romero’s homilies. Many Catholics stopped practicing our religion because of Msgr. Romero’s homilies. I remember once, he gave Mass at my school, and he OKed taking arms in order to help the poor. I felt terrible for not doing so. Being a teenager, and coming from a Priest, my mind and heart told me killing for a greater good could not be good. His interpretation of some passages of the Bible were horrible. As an adult now, I realize how theologically wrong they were.

I have formed myself… found my way back to Church… but many others in El Salvador, including close members of my family, have totally lost trust in the Church. I think Msgr. Romero did more harm than good. Definitely, “an eye for an eye” is not the pedagogy of Christ — it was his.

I’m very sorry you recommend the film. Very sorry. If it portrays a kind, generous, gentle man… I knew him. He wasn’t. If it portrays a pastor, caring for his souls… I can tell thanks to him many sheep left the way of the Church… Please keep this message for your website. I hope it helps you.

I’m certainly aware that many films can be a completely different experience for those with direct experience or expertise with the subject matter than for those without. I often try to learn something about the subject matter of a film before reviewing it, though of course there’s only so much I can do.

Obviously, I’m in no position to debate you on the merits of Romero’s reign as archbishop. On the other hand, It does seem as if your view is somewhat at odds with the Vatican’s. There is a cause for Archbishop Romero’s canonization as a saint, and he is currently recognized as a Servant of God.

If this one review of mine has you dubious of my work as a film critic, what’s your take on the Pope’s praise of Romero? Certainly he’s in a much better position to know the facts than I would be, and his judgment is more directly related to the actual man and his legacy than my judgment of the film.

Romero may indeed have made the remark about guns you report, but he seems to be widely regarded as an advocate of nonviolence. In any case, based on what you say I can’t be sure that the remark you mention about “taking arms to help the poor” is wrong. It is not true that “killing for a greater good” can never be good. Sometimes violence is morally legitimate.

I appreciate your perspective. I’m certainly open to rethinking my review; If all Catholics in El Salvador felt the way you do, I would have to do so.

I hope you find other reviews of mine more helpful.

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Re. Faith and Film Criticism

I wanted to let you know that I use your critiques as the major source of info for our family viewing. I know that if you have recommended it, the film will be good. I especially rely on your critiques of adult films, and have found all of your reviews right on target. Unfortunately, not all movies are available in our local rental shop. Just wanted to offer some encouragement after reading your article. :) Thanks you for the work you do. May God strengthen you.

Thanks for writing. I’m grateful for your comments.

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Re. Decent Films

90 percent of the movies I need to know about aren’t in your database. How can I find out if a movie is family and Catholic friendly if you don’t have it in your system!

Sorry, but 90 percent of my life is not about movies! As a husband and father of five (soon to be six) homeschooled children, with a full-time non-film related 9-to-5 job — and other non-film interests — there’s only so much I can do. You are going to have to do your best! You may find some help in my Links section (though it may be somewhat dated). Good luck.

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